What’s at stake with the ‘Friedrichs’ case

By Lacy Barnes

Union members delivered more than 100,000 signatures to the Center for Individual Rights. Michael Campbell photo.

A few weeks ago, I started an online petition to a group called the Center for Individual Rights — an organization backed by the Koch brothers, other right-wing 1 percenters, and even white supremacists — to tell them to stop attacking working people and our right to join a union. I wasn’t shocked when over 100,000 people signed my petition, and I wasn’t shocked at the response my brothers and sisters got from the Center for Individual Rights when they tried to deliver the petition signatures today.

Allow me to provide a little backstory for context: This Koch brothers-backed group is trying to make it even harder for public service workers — community college teachers like me, as well as nurses, social workers, firefighters, and others — to band together at work in order fight for benefits and wages we need to provide for our families. It is asking the Supreme Court in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to impose the same kind of radical agenda we’ve seen hurt everyday people in states like Wisconsin and practically every other state in the country. Worse yet, just like in Citizens United, if this all-out attack on everyday Americans succeeds, the result would be enshrined in the Constitution.

As an educator and a union member, I know what’s at stake here. When I began teaching at a California community college in 1992, it never even crossed my mind not to join a union, and it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. We’ve all seen the research showing that strong unions benefit the middle class. Being a union member has allowed me to speak in one voice with my colleagues for things that matter and that contribute directly to student success, such as class caps (i.e., smaller class sizes), professional development, office hours for part-time faculty, and equitable wages and benefits that help sustain families.

The Friedrichs lawsuit is a full frontal attack on working people and our unions. When people come together in a union, they can help make sure that members of our communities have jobs that support our families, which in turn supports our local economies. It means that educators can stand up for their students. Nurses and health professionals can advocate for commonsense safety measures that help patients and workers. First responders can push for critical equipment to protect themselves and those they serve. Social workers can advocate effectively for children’s safety…

When my petition exceeded 100,000 signatures, we decided to do an in-person delivery and ask the Center for Individual Rights to drop their assault on our rights at work. Unfortunately, I was unable to make the trip from California given that my semester began this week.

But thanks to my union and the other public sector unions involved in this fight, my brothers and sisters were able to bring the petitions to the Center for Individual Rights’ DC offices.

And that’s where this organization showed its true colors. When five working people arrived with our petition printed out, the Center for Individual Rights wouldn’t even speak to them. Security refused to allow them past the building lobby, and the staff refused to come down to accept the petitions, or even reject them, face to face.

Sadly, this is exactly what we have seen over and over from the wealthy few and corporate special interests behind Friedrichs. They claim to be supporting “individual rights,” but they won’t even talk to us when hundreds of thousands speak up against their agenda. They’re trying to silence our voice on the job and refusing to hear our voice in the process.

The question I have is, where does it end?

This fight is far from over. I will continue to talk to my friends, family and colleagues about what’s at stake, and I know many others who are doing the same.

We must continue to lift up voices of working people, on the job, in our political process and even at the steps of the Supreme Court.

My union brothers and sisters make our communities better — through collective action. We support the educators at our college. We provide a safe and welcoming environment for our students to learn. We rally for funding and community involvement. We’re ready to fight for ourselves and our community, but we can only win if we all work together. Secure those rally caps and let’s continue our work together!

Lacy Barnes is a community college teacher and union member from California who started the online petition that collected more than 100,000 signatures.